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Inside The Studios Of Fairfax Public Access

Operating on four channels and a robust budget, FPA serves as the outlet for community produced programming

Pictured is the layout in Studio A. ThreeHitachi ZHD-6000s are used for either a news or cooking themed program.

MERRIFIELD, VA–From just an observer’s perspective, Fairfax Public Access has plenty going for it. Operating on multiple channels, a robust budget, close to 800 volunteers and an extensive production space that even a commercial station would find impressive, FPA—or what locals refer to as ‘Channel 10’—has served as the platform to give residents a televised voice for close to three decades.

FPA airs on four channels: Channel 10, the station’s flagship channel, airs lifestyle and Washington, DC area programming; Channel 30 is where the station’s international and multicultural programming airs; Channel 36 airs religious, spiritual and philosophical content and Channel 37 shows informational slides from area non-profits and the county government as well as a live audio stream of FPA’s radio station, Radio Fairfax.

“Traditionally, in order to have a TV show, one either had to have a lot of money or be a government, because television is so expensive,” said Chuck Peña executive director of Fairfax Public Access. “So public access provides the means under which the average person, who may or may not have a lot of money, suddenly has access to electronic media.”

Peña says the station’s success is built upon three pillars: “our people, our cable partners and our local government.”

Volunteers Equipped With Top-Notch Gear

FPA volunteers and production staff produce both live, in-studio shows and taped on-location shoots.

For field use, volunteers have a choice between 11 JVC GY-HM600U ProHD Handheld Camcorders and three JVC GY-HM850U ProHD Shoulder Camcorders. Wireless Sennheiser lavaliers for picking up audio and Manfrotto tripods for steady shots serve as the standard issue accessories for field productions.

There is no shortage of places to edit video. One room alone houses seven editing stations, each of which has a professional-grade Sony LMD Series broadcast monitor, in addition to two other computer monitors. One separate edit bay even allows volunteers to cut clips with an old Sony RM-450 editing controller.

Each of the three television studios and their adjacent control rooms are meant to cater towards a different show type.

Studio A supports a news set and a fully operational kitchen set. A Cognito Console drives several Litepanel LEDs hanging over the two sets while three Hitachi ZHD-6000s production cameras on Viten Pro-Ped pedestals—each with their own Cuescript teleprompter—provide the video.

Control Room A, which gets the most use, according to FPA’s Chief Engineer Daniel Olewine, has the typical setup used for live productions but some unique tools as well. At the center of it all is a Ross Carbonite production switcher controlling the three cameras and inputs from a graphics computer, a separate utility computer and router inputs from the station’s master control room. Nearby is a Blackmagic SSD recorder, a RTS Matrix Intercom System for supporting communications between production staff and a Mackie Onyx 32.4 console for sound mixing. Shure wireless mics are used for the on-air talent and connect to the Mackie console.

The Equipment Reset Button used in Control Room A.

Because the station relies on mostly amateur media makers to produce content and many hands are using the equipment, it’s common for complex tools like a production switcher to accidently have important settings altered, which could negatively affect the production or prove to be time-consuming to reset. Olewine created a solution to avoid both of those two issues with a tool he calls the “Equipment Reset Button.” With a push of a big red button, a Raspberry Pi mini-computer running Linux OS with custom-made software developed by staff engineers, triggers all of the settings on the Ross production switcher to return to its default status.

For the purposes of hosting a band or a show requiring a large set, Studio and Control Room B has the same equipment used in Studio and Control Room A, all the way from the Hitachi ZHD-6000 cameras and LitePanel LEDs to the Ross production switcher and Mackie audio mixer. But FPA’s third studio and control room pair is entirely different than pairs A and B.

Shown is Studio C’s layout and the three Hitachi DK-Z50 HD Box Cameras used in it.

“This used to be a storage room before converting this into studio space,” Olewine said, referring Control Room and Studio C.

Studio C is entirely coated in neon green paint for the purpose of using the Newtek Tricaster 8000’s Virtual Set Editor software, located within Control Room C. The rest of the studio takes a more forward-thinking approach by employing three Hitachi DK-Z50 HD Box Cameras controlled by an Eagle Pan/Tilt PT-C55 Controller.

Media Production Seminars

Educating volunteers on the many aspects of producing electronic media is an important component to FPA’s operations, as it helps ensure volunteers can produce content for the station while also making sure equipment will be properly used.

“Ninety-percent of the time the class is hands-on, we put you in front of the equipment,” said Jay Erausquin, FPA’s director of training. “In between that, we put in rules about our policies and the rules you have to follow. And then, we have a few extra classes that do not teach equipment use but teach about improving the quality of the show, like voiceovers, on-camera talent and script-writing classes.”

Educational partnerships between FPA and other organizations are common. Just this past year, FPA hosted a George Mason University television production class teaching students how to use the Newtek Tricaster in Control Room C.

County And Cable Provide Support Robust Budget

Chuck Peña credits Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, the Department of Cable Communications & Consumer Services and its Division of Communications Policy & Regulation for FPA’s $2.8 million budget for 2016. Those public entities were able to secure contract agreements with both Verizon FiOS and Cox Communications that would see Fairfax Public Access get four channels and at least “8/10s of one-percent of their [cable] revenues,” according to Peña. “Of the $2.8 million we received last year, approximately 60 percent of it came from Verizon and 40 percent came from Cox.”

When asked about how FPA was able to secure a healthy amount of funding and how other PEG operators could benefit as well, Peña advises first and foremost to have a cordial and respectful relationship with the cable providers and county officials because it goes far when it comes to renegotiating a new cable agreement.

“In many communities you’ll find that the relationship between the public access channel and the cable providers is very hostile,” Peña said.